Harpswell Coastal Academy preserves voices of the pandemic

An annual humanities class at Harpswell Coastal Academy that launched in 2014 has been dedicated to an oral history project that captures the extraordinary stories of “ordinary” locals.

Chris Moss focused on the fishing industry for his Voices of the Pandemic project at Harpswell Coastal Academy. Contributed / Harpswell Coast Academy

This year’s theme, “Voices of the Pandemic,” builds on a tradition that has ranged from conservation advocates to seaweed harvesters. During 2020-21, students tackled how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the livelihoods and well-being of locals, including a teacher, commercial fisherman, general store owner and a nurse. Learning how people have weathered the pandemic – by changing course and aiding others in crisis – fits HCA’s curriculum of entrepreneurism and social change.

“At HCA, we help students identify what they care about, understand the historical and contemporary dynamics that impact it and develop skills for meaningful action,” Head of School Scott Barksdale said. “The great work that students are doing in this year’s Voices project is such a neat example of that.”

The class researched the pandemic’s global scope, studied oral histories from National Public Radio’s StoryCorps and culled interviewing tips from a New York Public Library curator. Due to social distancing constraints, they pivoted to Zoom interviews; recordings will be posted to harpswellstories.org and hopefully celebrated with a future exhibition at the school.

“Generations to come after us can hear these stories that people might not hear otherwise,” sophomore Chris Moss said. “In 20 years, we will be talking about what happened and teaching kids about this time.”

Because of his family’s lobstering lineage, Moss chose to focus on the seafood industry. He interviewed a commercial tuna fisherman whose livelihood hinged on demand from sushi restaurants and consumers who could afford the pricier fish. But with restaurants shuttered and wallets hurt by the pandemic, the fisherman needed a plan B. Chris found the tale has a happy ending – the man nimbly shifted his business to charter fishing excursions.

The Voices course exemplifies HCA’s philosophy of authentic, project-based, student-driven learning that is inquiry-based.

“Students realized how oral histories allow us to preserve future history,” humanities teacher Whitney Conway said. “Traditional ways of learning history have been from the top down. Now they are recording history from the bottom up, from regular people, and they understand why that matters. As one student commented, ‘I wonder how many voices were lost to history before this technology existed?’”

Denise Dowling is a contributor to Harpswell Coastal Academy.

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